Rockwood students suffer as bus driver shortage changes district transportation


Madison Heep

Buses line up in front of school after the end of the school day.

Rockwood is facing a shortage of bus drivers which is affecting the district’s student body as well as parents. Due to the shortage, the Transportation Department has had to make some changes to the protocol regarding who and what will be allowed.

“It wasn’t a knee jerk, it was painstakingly thought out. Transportation numbers, as far as students that we transported, were analyzed. I have worked on this since last March,” Director of Transportation, Mike Heyman, said. “We lost 30 drivers last school year and it was really not detected by anybody, but I eliminated two routes during the school year last year because we lost drivers out of fear of COVID. Most of our drivers are semi-retired or retired. They take care of their elderly parents. They don’t want to be sick, they want to be able to visit their grandkids.”

Rockwood had already lost bus drivers because of COVID and was able to successfully change routes without having to make it a big deal.

“As we were losing drivers, I was staying ahead of the curve and condensing and eliminating routes. One reason I was able to do that was also because our ridership was down by 26 percent due to COVID. A lot of parents felt the need to drive their kids to school and not put them on a bus,” Heyman said.

Since more students are attending school in-person, more students are riding the bus, however, Rockwood still doesn’t have enough drivers.

“We are now 44 drivers short of what we started last year with. I used to put out 147 home-to-school routes and this year we started out with 107, so we are basically 40 routes shy of where we used to be,” Heyman said.

Condensing and eliminating routes has been tough because of the impact it has on the community.

Heyman said they normally transport 13,600 kids, but due to the availability of drivers, they had to cut the number down by about 3,600 students. Unfortunately, that affected a little over 2,300 families that live within the approximate mile.

“Students who live within approximately one mile of our schools will no longer be eligible for transportation,” said the transportation page of the Rockwood website.

This new rule causes a problem for some students who may not have a ride other than the bus in the affected areas.

“I will have to walk down [Highway] 109 if I don’t have a ride and even on super cold and super hot days were they just expecting us to be fine?” Olivia Harrison, 10, said.

Harrison raises the question of safety concerns on exceptionally hot or cold weather, let alone the dangers of walking on a lively road.

“We wanted to make sure that the kids had reasonably safe areas to walk in. I say reasonably safe because a parent will call me and tell me that it’s not safe for a child to walk because there’s a hill,” Heyman said. “Or it’s not safe for their child to walk because they can’t see their child from their porch. So those are not safety concerns, I’m talking about safety concerns of crossing railroad tracks or major highways.”

Heyman’s concern is more about dangers rather than weather conditions, which is also backed up by others.

“Busy streets are always a concern for walkers or bike riders.  It is my understanding that the District has provided Crossing Guards at crosswalks that are of concern.  It is also up to the students and parents to cross busy streets at stop lights or stop signs that have a designated crosswalk,” School Board Member Tom Dunn said.

There are also quite a few benefits for students walking to school, especially with their parents.

“Some parents are walking with their kids, which is great, it’s healthy for them to get out and walk. I saw some parents driving their kids down in golf carts to school. I see some parents walking the dog with the kids to school in the morning. I’ve seen really good things,” Heyman said.

When students aren’t able to walk or they feel they can’t walk because of the weather conditions, they have to find rides with other students.

“I am relying on my brother’s friend to bring me to school and home. My brother does a fall sport so I’m going to have to ride with his friends without him,” Harrison said. “They have to go out of their way to pick me up. It’s not bad, it’s just an extra minute. Also, I have to expect to be on his time schedule and not mine so being at school isn’t my choice of when.”

Dunn agrees that it has affected students in the way that they may be arriving late to school and missing valuable class time because of these new routines. This bus driver shortage has impacted the community’s daily lives, however, it’s what needed to be done.

“As much as I want to transport everybody, I can’t. That’s the harsh reality. We’re doing this out of necessity. Not because we don’t have funds, not because I don’t have busses, I have plenty of busses, I just need people to be able to drive them,” Heyman said.

The Transportation Department has worked very hard to make sure that everyone has been aware of the changes and how it might impact families.

“What I did with Rockwood was to be as proactive as possible. I was as transparent as possible to let the parents know that we’re not just in a driver shortage, but our driver staffing is to a point where it’s really devastating to our transportation department because we can’t transport the kids that we used to transport,” Heyman said.

Heyman not only decided to be transparent with the community and the situation, he decided to act on the problem and get it fixed to the best of his ability.

“The worst thing I could have done was do nothing. And if I would have done nothing we would have started the school year off with 147 routes, but 40 of those routes I would have to tell parents it’s really not going to work because I don’t have anyone to drive the bus,” Heyman said. “And do you know how many people would know the week before school that they didn’t have any transportation? How big of a disservice would that be? Did not want to go there.”

With Heyman’s experience, he has always been up for a challenge, especially with the support from Rockwood.

“I have been in transportation for 42 years. If there’s a challenge I’ve always been up for it. If there’s a new way of thinking that needs to be brought into the picture, I’m open to it,” Heyman said. “It really helps to be in my position and have the support of the Superintendent and CFO and your Cabinet members and your Board. They understand, they listen to you, they have faith in what you do. The support from Rockwood has made this a lot easier for me.”